A splatter of sand across a bare cheek, the crush of firm hands on her neck and gulps of salty spray sliding down her throat. The last fragments of her identity wither and die, misfiring and grafting images of an early beach runner into her new reality. If she could reach backward and call him forth she would scream for him to save her, but she is lost to this other man now, this shadow.
She hears the thunder of the waves, the salty tang and zing of a cold breeze and the warmth of his hands. The pleasant sensations dissipate as her unresponsive body is dragged through the dampness of a new morning, green stalks of grass clumping under her fingernails. It’s alive – her body, but not for long. Her consciousness flickers, eyelids cracking apart. If only briefly her eyes rest on his lean torso stretching over her head as he loads her body into the back of the car. When he moves lower to tuck her arms in she feels his breath land on her face as a languid flood of heat. She awakens further and her hands fumble to push him away. Dark, hollow eyes graze her face, a twitch of panic in the corner of his left. She thinks now that running at first sight had been her only option. Her body had betrayed her in those first few exchanges – that smile, those dark eyes and curly, sun-kissed hair.
It’s the beginning of the end and her thoughts crackle in protest – she cries for a release from the unreal, to be anything but this. The suffocation remains but the pain is gone. His shadow vanishes and the pressure of his hands gripping her arms is now absent. Weakly lifting her head to the side, she sees him, the early beach runner, standing by the tall shadow now on the ground. The uncertain reality slides – eyes closing to hear the shouts and cries of agony filtering through the fog. She holds on long enough to hear a strange thud above her right ear. It’s the last thing she hears before she fades into blackness.
A flash of brilliant painful light and the pressure returns to her chest, but this time it’s different and her legs scratch with movement. Without warning the body gasps for breath again, the soul slamming back into its almost-abandoned shell. Two figures in blue are hovering above her, though her double vision obscures their faces.
Somewhere behind them, the dark shadow watches.
‘Don’t give up. Stay with us.’
The voice floats and envelopes. It startles and sears.
She is alive, for one more time, now in the cradle of a safe embrace.
‘Are you awake?’ The anxious voice drifts closer to her face as it speaks and a whisper of soft breath caresses her neck.
Who is she? Jessica.
What’s going on? The beach. She drowned. She died. She…
Where is she now?
Her fingers curl into a ball and she feels the softness of his hair threading through her fingertips. She hears him move forward to lightly plant a soft kiss on her forehead.
‘John?’ A raspy sound is all that comes as she strains to say his name.
‘Shhh, you’re ok, I’m here. I need to go and get the doctor.’
She wants to stop him, to ask why he wishes to kill her, but she can only move her arm a few inches off the bed. She opens her eyes to see his departing back, blonde curls bouncing as he hurries way.
The doctor materialises by her bedside and she avoids the dark eyes of her boyfriend.
She hit her head. But she’s lucky, her legs were moving while she slept and she didn’t break her neck as feared. She’ll regain her strength once the drugs wear off.
When the doctor leaves, John settles beside her, body rigid with distress.
‘I don’t understand what happened. Can you tell me? Please?’
He understands her soft request and his eyes fill with tears. ‘You dived into a rock. You almost drowned. Well you did… but you’re going to be fine.’
Jessica closes her eyes and concentrates. Fragmenting shards of memory splinter and pierce her calm and reward her with a sharp jolt on the right side of her head. She groans softly. She has no memories of hitting her head, only sand and the tangible echo of hands grasping her neck.
‘That runner on the beach, did I imagine him?’
John shakes his head, blonde curls flicking to and from his temples. ‘No, he saved us, he saved you. He ran up the hill to a spot where you can get reception. He sent an ambulance.’
Jessica nods and turns away, pushing any painful thoughts into the dim part of her mind where memories go to die. When the images fade she focuses on her breathing and how lucky she is to be alive.
Later, with her family and John by her side, she settles into sleep, allowing the drugs to sweep her back to a familiar beach and the figure of an early beach runner, jogging by in a sweaty red shirt and blue shorts…
John’s hands are around her waist, tugging and pulling her closer.
‘What are you doing?’ Her words slip out between snorts of laughter, eyes squinting in mock distaste.
Blonde curls smack against her forehead and she reaches up to kiss him. Before she can get close enough a wave knocks her forward out of reach and across the sand bar. She’s laughing as she tries to stand, but another wave knocks her from her feet.
‘There’s a rip forming, I think we should leave. It’ll take a little while to paddle back.’
She ignores him and dives off the sandbar and the cold touch of dawn disappears, the warmth of the sea water gliding against her skin. When she attempts to resurface, another wave thunders overhead, and she’s tumbling, spiralling out of control. When the wave passes she feels a pressure on the middle of her back. She can’t move and her throat is tightening, choking on water and sand. The waves rock her head from side to side, a burn creeping up her throat. Every muscle and organ screams for air and she wonders if this is death. When the shock clears she tries to move again, but John is holding her down into the sand. She thinks he is trying to pull her into his arms, but he’s trying to kill her.
She wants to live.
When he thinks she’s dead his hand takes her by the neck, pulling her forward and into the weak light of a new morning. Jagged cliffs form a ring around the isolated beach – an isolation that has its many advantages. No people. No reception. He can make sure she’s gone before he drives back into town. When he gets reception he can call for an ambulance. Easy. No one will know.
The early beach runner stumbles across them as he’s trying to load her body into the car. Both of them can see her eyelids fluttering. She’s alive.
‘What’s happening?’ The early beach runner looks from John to the body lying on the backseat. John needs to think fast, and he does, body crumpling to the ground and arms flailing as he emits a desperate cry.
‘I can’t get any reception! My girlfriend, she drowned. I tried CPR but I’m not sure if she’s going to make it.’
The early beach runner, in his bright red singlet and blue shorts, face sweaty and marked with grime, switches into action. He doesn’t even notice that John isn’t holding a phone. It’s sitting somewhere on the front seat of his car. The early beach runner can see nothing else but his new patient.
‘Don’t worry, I’m a life guard.’ The early beach runner leans forward and smiles when his fingertips graze her neck and uncovers the gentle pulse of her heartbeat, and even more so when a flutter of air from her mouth tickles his ear.
‘I’m going to run up the side of the cliffs, there’s a spot up there where you can get reception. It won’t take me long. I’ll call an ambulance. You just keep watching and perform CPR again if she stops breathing. Don’t stop until they get here.’
The runner takes off and John is left alone with the body, the life he is trying to end. When she wakes will she remember what he did? Will her eyes spark with recognition of his dark deed? He grabs a large rock resting on the path the runner took and steps forward to inspect her peaceful face and the soft rise and fall of her chest.
He hates her.
But he loves her.